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Writing Palettes: An Exercise in Writing, Seeing, and Breaking Writer’s Block

Harold, lives in 150 Mile House, BC. He won the Confederation Poetry Prize, 1991, and the Arc Poem of the Year Award and the Critic’s Desk Award for best long poetry review, 2003. He has been a five-time runner-up in the CBC/Tilden/ Saturday Night Literary Contest and won the BC & Yukon Community Newspapers Association Award for Best Arts and Culture Writing, 1996. His non-fiction book Tom Thomson’s Shack was shortlisted for two BC Book Prizes in 2000, and its sequel, The Wolves at Evelyn, will be published by Brindle & Glass in September, 2006.

“There is a lot of time up on the Cariboo to contemplate the colour of snow: six months out of every twelve, in fact. When you add it all up, it becomes half a lifetime. So, what colour is snow? Well, not white. The snow that falls in November, for example, comes down in the evening like ashes from a July forest fire. The next dawn, it lies on the ground the colour of plum blossoms. By February, after the snow has half-melted and refrozen countless times, the shadows of trees burn across it in tattoos of bright lilac, while between the shadows it is dogrose pink – something between Martha Stewart’s “Plaster Pink” and “Heirloom Rose.”

Mind you, when I ask students what colour snow is, the answer is most often “white.” I know what they mean. This confusion has a lot to do with the generalizing way in which language is most commonly used. Most of the time generalities serve our purposes well, allowing us to set shared terms and to encompass large amounts of information within easily transmissible categories. Where generalities don’t always work, however, is in creative writing. However useful generalities might be in conversation or in technical writing, they are not easily going to lead to symbolism or expressive metaphors. To create those, we need enough individual, sensory material to make sufficient connections with our physical, perceptual lives to allow for the opening of unexpected doorways. With those doorways open, there is little, if any, writer’s block; with them closed, every sentence can be a struggle. I know about that: when I first moved to the Cariboo, I was silenced completely.

 

I had just left the Similkameen Valley, where I had lived for thirty-five years, most of that spent working the land. In fact, I knew the land so intimately that I could walk out of my house, smell the cloudless, 35 degree early afternoon air, and tell you that a storm would come at 2 a.m., bringing two inches of rain. I wrote poems and my autobiography Out of the Interior out of that knowledge. Even so, it was not easily transferable: as soon as I moved to the Cariboo the world became generic overnight. I looked out over the lake in front of my new house and saw blue water, white clouds, green trees, brown tree trunks, and blue sky. It was ridiculous. I felt like I had entered a box of Crayola crayons.

 

My solution was to create palettes of colour. I set myself the task of sitting outside for a half hour every afternoon to create, in the manner of a watercolour painter, a palette of colours which I would be able to apply to my writing. Over the next three weeks, the reeds out on the point revealed their colours: old mason jars in my grandmother’s basement, Bibb lettuce, the yellow of a D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer, and even, on the edges where the glaring light burnt into the stalks, the crazy purples of zinnias or petunias and the red of my daughter’s rusty wagon. So it went for the whole landscape, until at the end of three weeks I was writing with great energy – no longer creating palettes but applying them. The result was a host of books: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and, most importantly of all, my latest book Winging Home: A Palette of Birds – the direct result of that experiment with colour. Over the course of writing the book – and living it – the palette did change, of course, from the use of colour to find my connections with the landscape to the use of the lives of birds to find connections between my family, my children, the land, and the social life of an entire community. The book became a celebration – one which would have been impossible without that exercise in creating a palette. The experience was so powerful that I wanted to share the process with others. In short, I wanted to give it away.

 

I got my chance this spring in Vernon. In early May I met a group of writers at the Alan Brooks Nature Centre in the grasslands overlooking town. During the following six hours, I shared with them a variety of colour palettes, from the rather stultifying soil colour profiles of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Brown, Light Brown, Dark Brown, Dark Yellow Brown, etc.), to the delightful shades of Revlon hair dyes (Honey Glaze, Cherry Cola, Buttered Toast) and the riotous extravagance of Martha Stewart (Hooked Rug, Green Tea, Lamb’s Ear) and explored the colours within the landscape of the nature centre grounds itself. Together, we moved through palettes of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet to describe the leaves, flowers, stones, and man-made objects that surrounded us. To focus our discoveries, I set three limitations: first, we would not use the generic names of colours, second, we would describe each colour in terms of a second obect, and third, we would find at least one example of each colour in every type of object. When it came to blue, for example, we found shades of blue within the gravel of the walkways (not an easy task!), in the doors of the Nature Centre storage shed, in the leaves of the saskatoon bushes, in the balsam root flowers, in the sky – everywhere, even where it seemed impossible. By the afternoon, we had a detailed palette for the landscape and were able to write about saskatoon bushes like silk blouses and garage doors like hydrangea flowers, and applied our palettes to our own writings. The results were stunning: generic descriptions of landscape written early in the day suddenly came alive. Instead of each sentence ending a thought and the next sentence coming in with a new one, each sentence suddenly provided doorways for memory, emotion, and gave linkages which bound paragraphs into common threads of thought. The writing now flowed with ease between description of natural and humanly created landscapes, including the growth of subdivisions and the entire history of land use in the valley. All the connections so important to the creation of poems, short stories, and essays had become immediately present. All that was left was to follow them.

 

A week later, I repeated the exercise with a group of writers in Kamloops. This time, we covered a far larger area, and with a far less homogenous group. The responses varied: some people responded to the walking itself, actively surging ahead to be the first to discover colours, while others hung behind more contemplatively and discovered colours that the more active members had missed. Still others initially bypassed words altogether and collected debris – posters, sandwich wrappers, etc. – blown off of the TRU campus by the wind, to illustrate colours they had noticed earlier in pine bark and lichen. We concluded the day with a thirty minute discussion while looking out over the Thompson Valley and the city of Kamloops. During the discussion, each participant explained what struck them most about the landscape, after which the entire group explored the possibilities of colour, shape, and motion which could create alternate palettes for teasing out the connections within their particular interests. One workshop participant, for instance, was drawn not to colour but to the traffic crossing a distant bridge; the palette we worked out communally for him was a palette of movement, not one of colour.

Right now, I am editing a book on the grasslands of the Chilcotin and am making plans to lead a group of writers there to experience that remarkable and little-known landscape. I’m confident that we will find a palette for it and that if we start with a palette of colour some people will quickly gravitate to palettes of stone, dust, grasses or wind, while others will move as deeply into colour as I did with Winging Home. I see no reason why a dozen other books will not come of the workshop, following the process which Winging Home documents in greater detail than these brief notes can do. As liberating as the grasslands are, to lead this workshop you don’t need them, of course, or even a lake, or trees, or even a cityscape. In a pinch, any school yard will serve just as well, or even a collection of natural and artificial objects within a classroom. All that are required to break the bounds of the ordinary are open eyes and a sense of discovery – which, of course, abound, even within our more generalized world.

Harold Rhenisch

www.haroldrhenisch.com

 

You can find out more about
Winging Home from the publisher at
http://www.brindleandglass.com/books/winging.htm
Winging Home: A Palette of Birds
Vital Statistics 1-897142-12-9 ($24.95 C | $22.95 US)
6″ x 9″ paperback, 288 pages.

 

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